I was recently on a date with a guy that had a promising start. The conversation was flowing, and it was clear we were both attracted to each other. But before we’d even had a second drink he’d brought up his debilitating self-esteem issues. And his latent eating disorder. And his rocky relationship with his father. And not because I asked.
As a chronic oversharer, I get it. First dates can be nerve-wracking, and when faced with an empty space in the conversation I’ll say just about anything to diffuse the tension, including stories about my own alcoholic father and many mental illnesses that I find funny but actually aren’t. I’m also not a heartless jerk. I appreciate honesty and vulnerability in a guy I’m interested in romantically, and I don’t recoil at the thought of men expressing their feelings or being transparent. I listened, and I felt for him. But when I brought up the idea of possibly going to therapy, he shrugged and changed the subject. By the end of the night, I felt like I was used as a free (and highly unqualified) therapist, and we didn’t make plans to meet again.
Even for men who aren’t in crisis or experiencing emotional trauma but have the means, seeing a therapist can be incredibly beneficial—for them, for their partners, and I’d argue, society as a whole. Emotionally stifled men who are afraid to sit with their own feelings, let alone someone else’s, can lack the ability to empathize with others. This can not only strain relationships, but can have disastrous and even violent consequences. Those who work to break this pattern by seeking outside emotional counsel can play a significant part in challenging misogyny, rigid definitions of masculinity and gender, and a culture that normalizes sexual violence.
I’ve sought some form of counseling or therapy on and off throughout my life, particularly during tumultuous periods. As a woman, I’m far from alone. A 2014 study from St. Michael’s Hospital and the Institute of Clinical Evaluative Science in Toronto indicated that women are more likely to seek out psychological counseling during a crisis earlier than men. Instead, men will often turn to external coping mechanisms like alcohol, according to a 2012 study published in the journal Social Science and Medicine. As a result, women are often socialized to be emotional fixers, absorbing the feelings of everyone around them.
It’s important to acknowledge the many social and emotional barriers that prevent men from seeking professional counsel, some of which have been ingrained since childhood, says Beverly Engel, a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of Healing Your Emotional Self. “Boys are taught that it isn’t okay for them to cry, so they push their more vulnerable feelings down,” Engel says. “Males in most cultures are raised to be tough and strong and to fend for themselves, so going to therapy can make them feel like they have failed somehow.”
Compounding this, traditional forms of talk therapy can also be expensive, making it financially inaccessible to many who might seek it out. And depending on a man’s racial or ethnic background, seeing a therapist can bring about feelings of distrust. A white therapist, for example, might not be as sensitive to or aware of the ways systemic racism and violence can impact a person’s physical and emotional well-being, making it a potentially alienating experience.
The same could be said for individuals of immigrant experience. As a Latina, I have first-hand experience of the blind spot some therapists can have when it comes to cultural issues, and the complexities of growing up with an immigrant parent. That’s not to say that people of color can’t or shouldn’t see white therapists. Rather, that medicine and psychotherapy have a long history of enforcing racism and that given this history, which still impacts the quality of medical care many individuals of color receive, some might be understandably distrustful of the experience.
Beyond the social barriers, it’s also challenging for men to be in the right space to be open to therapy’s benefits. Often, for example, a man’s first contact with a professional therapist is in couples counseling, which can often feel like a “female privileged space,” explains sex therapist Dr. Joe Kort.
If men are able to overcome these barriers, therapy can be a safe space to acknowledge shortcomings and gaps in emotional intelligence or compassion, and to sit without fear of judgement or “having to worry about appearing to be weak,” Engel explains. Being tuned into one’s own feelings as well as unspoken external cues can make someone a more compassionate romantic and sexual partner, and more able to empathize with women generally.
A recent headline-making example of when this type of empathy can come into play was comedian Aziz Ansari’s response to a date who said he coerced her into sexual behavior that she wasn’t comfortable with, and ignored her verbal and nonverbal requests for him to stop. After the date, the young woman, who relayed the experience in an essay, said she texted Ansari about her discomfort. Ansari replied to her message, saying that he “clearly misread things in the moment.” Following the storm of media coverage that followed the essay’s publication, Ansari released a statement expressing his surprise and concern that the young woman had experienced the date the way she did.
This gap between understanding of sexual consent and the ability to empathize is the kind of emotional intelligence that men aren’t typically taught to value or prioritize, but can often be cultivated with the help of a therapist.
Men as a whole shouldn’t be pathologized, but individual men who have access to psychotherapy resources might do well to question their place in a culture that normalizes misogyny and the abuse of women both at a personal and institutional level, and that could mean questioning themselves. “If men cannot have compassion for their own suffering they aren’t likely to have compassion for the suffering of others,” Engel explains.
So often, it’s women who are tasked with finding solutions to the societal ruptures and oppression many of us face. Now more than ever, it’s crucial that men try therapy, at least once, and regardless of mental health status, to right this imbalance.
Go on dates for the fun and witty banter, but go to a therapist for help—mixing the two won’t do either of us any good.